October 12th, 2007
Title: Singing for Life: Songs of Hope, Healing, and HIV/AIDS in Uganda
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Catalog No.: SFW CD 40537
Singing for Life is a tremendous work, documenting a variety of musical responses to the AIDS epidemic in Uganda. It is accompanied by 36-page booklet, with a readable yet highly informative narrative by ethnomusicologist Gregory Barz, who worked in the area for several years, collecting the myriad of sounds represented on this album. In addition to several pages which place this music in social, cultural, and historical context, the story behind each track is included, often with lyrical translation (the songs are primarily sung in local languages). Also included is a painting by local artist Francis Wasswa; AIDS in a Ugandan Village is an intricate work which depicts the daily life of people working against the spread of the disease. In this maze of daily life are scenes of Christian ministry, health educators, and women’s theater groups, all addressing the epidemic in their own ways. All together, these images represent one glimpse of life in a part of the world where AIDS has had a tremendous impact on people’s lives, where the disease rate has risen to as high as 35% of the population.
The music itself tells another story, one which suggests that there is a solution, that there are alternatives to the devastation which the disease has caused. While all of the songs in this collection address the AIDS epidemic, they are nonetheless energetic, hopeful and catchy. Musically, they draw on the wide range of musical traditions found in Uganda. “Silimu okutumala! (AIDS has finished us)” is a lively tune sung by Bukona Women’s Group, accompanied by clapping and percussion. Several tracks, such as 7 and 9, illustrate the rich harmonic traditions often associated with church hymns. While many tracks feature a cappella singing, others highlight the breadth of local instruments that are common in this part of the world. Track 10 features the unique embaire xylophone that is commonly played in the Busiki region. This xylophone consists of a dug trench with large banana trees on either side. Large wooden slats are rested on these trees, separated by bicycle spokes. The xylophone accompanies a men’s group singing in call-and-response fashion, narrating the death of an important man in the region.
Another example of the interesting musical sounds that are a part of the local soundscape is found on Track 11. The musicians, Centurio Balikoowa and Kiirya Moses, play the ntongooli bowl lyre, which accompanies a song highlighting the importance of behavioral change and education to effectively treat the disease, a common theme of the songs composed by grassroots groups on this collection. This track is endearing because of the extra sounds heard in the recording – such as a small child singing along spontaneously. As a field collection, Gregory Barz has struck a balanced middle ground; the tracks on this album have a ‘live’ feeling, evident in both the extraneous sounds as well as the high energy of performances, yet the quality of the recording is relatively high.
The lyrical translations are helpful in understanding the songs, although some are also partially in English. Here we see the particular usefulness of certain lyrics, and their function in educating people in on-the-ground ways. There are further examples of songs that are transforming for the performers, as many of the community and women’s groups are composed of people with HIV/AIDS. One piece of information that was likely sacrificed for this lyrical focus, is details about the instruments and the non-lyrical musical aesthetics. It would be helpful, for example, to know more about the rhythmic basis of the singing, the origins of the harmony employed, or the origin of that unique buzzing timbre on the first track.
Perhaps what is most shining in this collection is the whole picture which it creates of the situation in Uganda. The statistical truth of the AIDS epidemic in Uganda is a sad and desperate situation, one which has affected every Ugandan in dramatic ways. Yet, the AIDS rates have declined in Uganda in recent years, a fact which Gregory Barz argues is largely due to the grassroots efforts, particularly through musical performances such as those represented here. Singing for Life is therefore not just a musical collection; it is a testimonial to the power of music to transform, heal and empower in even the most devastating situations.
Posted by Angela Scharfenberger
Review Genre(s): World Music